Near The Water

Published Feb 21, 2024

Hydrologist Dr. Karletta Chief of the Navajo Nation talks with Jess about the unique scientific problems facing indigenous communities in the United States and what role science has in finding the solutions.


When modern scientists do work outside of the lab, they’re often working amidst communities and cultures that are not their own. My first volcano research was on the island of Hawai`i, where native culture permeates place names, the local vocabulary via Hawaiian pidgin slang, and important restrictions on behavior, like not entering most lava tubes as they served as burial chambers for native Hawaiians. Before I worked on Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano in Tanzania I asked permission to proceed from an elder in the Masaai tribe, because to the Masaai people that volcano is sacred, and its name means “Mountain of God.”

Yes, scientific work is ideally objective and furthers our knowledge of the planet, but it cannot happen in a vacuum. In the United States, many native peoples have been forced from their ancestral lands and relocated to reservations. Many of these lands are rich in natural resources, and have been exploited commercially for that reason. Contamination of water and soil from industrial operations like mining and farming, water availability or lack thereof, and access to even basic services like indoor plumbing and electricity are very real issues that plague native communities right here in the US, today.

Scientists are changing the way they work in and more importantly with native communities now that we know better. Gaining insight into what indigenous peoples need and want and including them as equal partners in work that impacts them and their land is non-negotiable.

Today’s conversation is essential listening, so if you find our guest’s audio hard to understand please visit for a complete transcript, or watch the full version of the interview on the Union of Concerned Scientists YouTube page.

As always, I’m your host Jess Phoenix and this is…SCIENCE.

Jess: I'm excited to speak with Dr. Karletta Chief, hydrologist and professor at the University of Arizona. She's the director of the Indigenous Resilience Center and she also led the National Science Foundation-funded Indigenous Food, Energy, Water, Security and Sovereignty Training Program, or Indige-FEWSS. Karletta is Diné and spent her early years on the Navajo Nation and brings both her personal and academic expertise to her efforts to help build resilient and sustainable solutions for indigenous communities. Would you start us off by sharing what was the catalyst for you to start your scientific career?

Dr. Chief: Hello. Wonderful to be on this podcast and wonderful to meet you, Jess. My name is Karletta Chief, yá'át'ééh, as we say in Navajo, or Diné, which means all is well. And I wanna just go ahead and introduce myself in my own language. Yá'át'ééh [foreign language 00:01:03.821]. I am Bitter Water born from Near-the-Water. And that's how I identify myself as an indigenous mother, scientist, woman.

And I entered into the scientific field mainly because of my upbringing on the Navajo Nation. I was born and raised in a remote area of the Navajo Nation and grew up there without electricity or running water. My family lived within the Peabody Coal area, which is a coal company that mined coal and needed a transportation system where they grinded their coal and pulverized it and transported, you know, water.

And so growing up in that community, I saw a lot of the environmental impacts from coal mining, such as water contamination, land degradation, air pollution, and also health impacts. And then also just human rights in general, you know, the forestry location of my relatives, my grandmother, my own parents, and how they went through those impacts, and yet they didn't have a voice and the fact that their coal was being mined in their community. And I became very concerned about it at a young age and wanted to go to college to understand environmental science, environmental engineering so that I could use this knowledge and information to help my own community.

Jess: Wow. So your motivation is deeply personal and I'm sure you have that academic curiosity that drives all of us who go into the sciences, too. How do things work? Why do they work? And something you mentioned about being in close proximity to coal mining actually is a great segue to starting to talk about environmental contamination, which is something that's been in and out of the public's consciousness for several decades.

Obviously, the coverage of the Cuyahoga River fire in Ohio in 1969, it was an impetus for a lot of environmental topics to be brought front and center and created the EPA as a result. So I wanted to ask you then, could you explain why it is that we're still seeing calls to clean up waterways 50 years after that sort of wake-up call?

Dr. Chief: Many indigenous communities, they have faced and experienced a lot of environmental injustice through the centuries. And it comes about from racism, colonization of their land. And particularly with mining, on the Navajo Nation, there's over 500 abandoned uranium mines, anywhere to, you know, smaller mines to larger mines. And that comes about because of the need for uranium during World War II for nuclear energy and creation of the nuclear bomb.

So during that time, there was a big effort to extract uranium and it was done very quickly. And a lot of policies were not in place to protect the environment, as well as tribal sovereignty was challenged and taken advantage of. As a result, the Navajo people are left with a lot of abandoned uranium mines locally.

And, it's just pretty common for us to know somebody that has been impacted by cancer or is dealing with it now. And that's just uranium. Then, of course, we have coal, we have oil, natural gas. The Navajo Nation specifically has a lot of natural resources. But in general, for the United States, tribes do have a significant portion of the natural resources on their tribal lands that have been sought after for extraction. And so through the centuries, they have been impacted in a very negative way where natural resources extraction has revolved within not only environmental impacts that have often gone unregulated but also has caused not only health impacts but also social and mental impact to the people.

And so that history of extraction from the late 1800s to, you know, almost the 1970s not only occurred in the Navajo Nation but also upstream in Colorado. And so you just have the whole days of underground mining canals that are there, tunnels, I'm sorry, that are there, and as the groundwater rises, it'll fill those hollow mining tunnels. And then that's when the geochemistry starts again, in that it'll begin to dissolve what's in the rocks there and cause acid mine drainage.

And so more recently, I was able to work with my team on the Gold King Mine spill, which released three million gallons of acid mine drainage into the Animas and San Juan Rivers. So there are hundreds of mines in Colorado alone that are basically a waiting time bomb for something to happen.

Jess: So that's where I'd like to start talking about the NSF program that you just led for the last six years, Indige-FEWSS. Obviously, it focuses on indigenous communities. So do we currently see large differences in the way food, energy, and water are dealt with or not dealt with on indigenous designated lands?

Dr. Chief: Yes, I'm really excited to talk about Indige-FEWSS because it's something I'm very passionate about. That actually came about through our work through the Gold King Mine spill project. And that not only were we getting a lot of students from indigenous communities that were interested in helping out because they felt so passionate and desire to help in this environmental catastrophe, but also non-indigenous students that wanted to participate.

But when it comes to indigenous community, you can't just go in there without having any training or preparation or orientation. And so when we went to work in the Navajo community, I personally had to sit down with my team, orient them, give them some training, some tips. What are things you shouldn't do? How do you conduct yourself in indigenous communities? What are things you shouldn't say? What kind of cultural protocols are there in terms of dress? Things like that. And then also engaging our community partners to offer at least some teachings from the cultural and spiritual perspective as it relates to traditional knowledge.

So we did this as we were working in those communities. And from that, we were able to involve and work with 100 students in the Gold King Mine spill project. Half of them were Native American, which is very significant. And they worked in all different phases of our project from working in the lab, processing soil samples, water samples, operating laboratory equipment, field sampling, training tribal college students, writing up extension bulletins, developing video. So anywhere from undergraduate tribal college students, undergraduate researchers to Master's and Ph.D. students.

We realized that there needs to be training program where we're able to train students on how to work with indigenous communities. One of the best places to do it is the University of Arizona, because not only are we land-grant university, we have extension. We have many Native American Centers of Excellence, the Native Nations Institute, the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program.

So we have a significant number of Native American programs here to collaborate with and to build the program. And so we got the award, and we focused it on food, energy, the water system, mainly because, you know, when you talk about environmental impact, it connects to all the systems. It impacts the ability to grow food. It could then connect to energy and then water. So we centered around that so that it could be more holistic. And we also wanted to put the people at the center of the effort. So the people and how they're impacted, their rights, their culture, their sovereignty. And through this program, we were able to train students how to work with indigenous communities in a multi-faceted way where they would get coursework, they would get seminar, they get one-on-one training in the academic setting, but also, they would go into the community, they would be immersed, and they would spend anywhere from a week to two months in the community being immersed. We also have students that did summer internships there on the Navajo Nation. We also worked with the tribal college, Diné College, and the students learned how to teach and be able to teach tribal college students and develop curriculum on a food, energy, and water system.

And then we worked with the community partners working at the chapter houses and engaging with Navajo citizens. And then each of these students talked about how one would go and ethically work with tribal communities along the areas of research. So through this work we work with a variety of communities, a number of tribes, depending on the students' connections, their mentors, and then also our team. So we had a student that worked on the Crow Nation, working on the Little Bighorn River looking at water contamination. We had students that worked on developing centers for Navajo farmers and the greenhouse. We had students working on developing off-grid water system for remote Navajo communities.

So I think it definitely made an impact, a positive impact, to those tribes, those tribal partners that we work with, their communities. And the students were trained in the process of doing that work and working with communities. But we still have a long way to go. You know, my program is just one small program and a whole sea of tribal communities and needs across the United States, much less across the world. Jess: When I was reading up for talking to you, when I was preparing about the Navajo-specific partnership, I saw that 35% of Navajo Nation households don't have electricity or potable water. And you mentioned that you grew up not having access to those things in your home. It just seems criminal in an age where we've based so much of our society on the assumption that people have reliable internet connections and clean water from the tap anytime they want it.

So in your experience, professionally, personally, otherwise, what has been the most effective at moving the needle towards clean water access for indigenous people, both in the Navajo Nation and other indigenous communities?

Dr. Chief: I think what has moved the needle is collaboration and inter-community tribal working group where we come together with our resources, our work, the data that we have to be able to all just work together and bring our resources. And I think one of the best examples that I've been honored to be part of during the COVID-19 pandemic was the Navajo Nation Water Access Coordination Group.

And, you know, during the pandemic, some of the disparities related to access to clean water, food, and energy were even more amplified, as well as brought to light. Many of us who are working in the communities and are from these communities know that this exists, but COVID-19 brought a spotlight on it, especially with the funds that were being made available like with the ARPA fund and how quickly they needed to be spent. And so the Navajo Nation created this Water Access Coordination Group that involves universities, nonprofits, inter-agencies, like state, federal entities, and tribal entities to come together and come up with a plan, provide data to how we can prioritize getting water to the people.

Jess: One of the solutions that I read that you've worked with is deploying nanofiltration water systems in the Navajo Nation. So can you geek out a little for us and tell us about that technology and who maintains it, who funds it, and just sort of all about those, because I think that's fascinating.

Dr. Chief: Before the pandemic, through the program at Indige-FEWSS, we presented this concept of an off-grid solar-powered water system where not only is the water being treated on-site at a remote location using solar, but also that the brine coming off of that treatment system could be used to water a greenhouse, which is also off-grid. And the greenhouse is a controlled environmental agricultural system that is using sensors to create optimal growing conditions within the greenhouse.

And so we were primarily working with the tribal college, which is Diné College, in a training and capacity building effort, and building a very large system, which is a unit that sits on our trailer bed and would be able to provide water for up to 5 families based on use of just 30 gallons per day. And so that was the system that we built that was led by Robert Arnold, Kim Ogden, and Vicky Karanikola.

And then when the pandemic hit, the Navajo Nation actually reached out to us. So we never went in there offering, you know, the system. They actually reached out to us because they were familiar with the work that we were doing with Diné College, and they asked us, "Can you design a system that is just for the home?" Because at this point during the pandemic, we're talking about stay-at-home orders, limited interactions with people. And this was very challenging because the Navajo people are a very cultural community, big family-oriented people, and so now you're asking people to be just at home, stay at home within your house. And so they wanted us to downscale the system and be able to pilot in different communities, and the communities all had different types of water sources.

So we've been working with piloting these systems, partnering with Sixth World Solutions, and as part of that, we really entered into this stage called co-design, because for us, our first effort is to just listen. Listen to the people, listen to what their concerns are, listen to their questions, and that's what we call community-based participatory research, where the questions are coming from the people and they're posing those research questions.

And then from there, enter into this equal partnership. And specifically to this off-grid solar nanofiltration water system, that's where we entered into co-design, because their technicians know what is needed because they're so familiar with the people they knew there, who was gonna use it. And that also benefits them as well in terms of workforce development, obtaining more types of skills.

And so we worked with them to co-design it during the pandemic, and then they were the ones that identified the families who we would work with. So then the families also became part of the co-design, because every time we would visit them, they would tell us, "This design doesn't work. This part of your system is malfunctioning." So in that sense, there were then three designers in the process. And then once we got to a prototype, then we brought it out to the chapter level, which is the larger community, and shared it with the leaders and the community there. And then again, that's when we also were able to get some feedback.

So for each of those highlighting, we needed to understand the water quality of that region. And so we did a lot of water sampling. And so we ended up with two different designs. One which has the membrane that removes contaminants of concern, like lead and arsenic. But then there were communities where that wasn't an issue, and their water quality was pretty good. And typically those were communities that relied on springs. And for those, we're mostly just focused on disinfection. And we used the UV disinfection to treat those waters.

Jess: I think it's so amazing that it's not just, like, community-informed solutions that you're working on, but it's community-driven. It really reframes the approach we need to have for doing solutions-based science, and solutions-motivated science, especially with the challenges we see from climate change.

So I wanted to then ask, which ties right into climate change, what are the main issues around water security, particularly in the arid southwestern regions, like where the Navajo Nation is, and of course, where you've done a lot of your work? What are the most pressing things we need to be paying attention to?

Dr. Chief: Yes. I think for the southwestern tribes, definitely water access is a pressing challenge with climate change. I had the opportunity to work with a big interworking group early on when I was involved with the National Climate Assessment. We quickly found out that there's not a lot of information when it comes to tribes and how climate change will impact tribal water.

So we did a first-eye assessment, looking at five regions across the United States to identify the most pressing climate impacts to the tribe, and specifically for the southwest, which has continued to become more and more pressing, is water access. And specifically, they're fighting tribal water rights, especially with the Colorado River declining rapidly. And there are tribes that still do not have their water rights defined. And what does that mean now, like, with declining water in the Colorado River? Will the tribes still get how much they had wanted to get? And so there's a lot of tribal water law that's involved with that, which I'm definitely not an expert in.

And at the same time, for many Native Americans, water is very sacred. Water is life. And when you're talking about tribal water rights, a lot of times you have to quantify, you have to put a number to it. And that's where it gets very hard because many tribes don't wanna modify water, and they wanna keep it in place for the environment, for cultural uses, as well as spiritual uses, and be able to revere it as they have done for a long time. So I think definition, defining the tribal water rights, water access, because there are many people who don't have access to water. And then also water quality, because the water sources that they do have access to may not be potable or may not be suitable for agricultural uses. So water quality is a pressing challenge.

And then for some communities, that water quality is changing because of climate change. And so water infrastructure becomes an issue as well because their water treatment facilities may either not be there, and if they are there, they may not be able to treat the water because of the change in water quality. They may be poorly maintained. And then just where water is changing, you know, with the floods, like in Alaska, melting permafrost, melting glaciers. Where water is and when it arrives is changing as well, in addition to water quality changes. And so things are moving really fast when it comes to water and how water is being impacted in tribal communities.

Jess: I wanted to know if you have any requests for our audience in terms of supporting indigenous community resilience. How can non-indigenous people and particularly non-indigenous scientists be best of service?

Dr. Chief: For scientists out there being aware of the challenges that face indigenous communities. We're steering away from helicopter research, but rather listening to the community and involving them before any kind of grant comes through, and making sure that the research that's being done is really supporting the communities and that data sovereignty is protected for the people.

So when it comes to science, it's not only the ethics of doing research with indigenous communities, but also understanding that within the indigenous community, their perspectives are very different in that they are very rooted in the environment. How you can help them is basically understanding and respecting them.

Jess: Yeah, I think it's one of the jobs of scientists, in particular, but also just people as a species. We need to keep learning and inquiring and growing. That interrogation of our assumptions is essential, especially if you wanna actually be a good ally. And so I have one last sort of signature question that I ask our guests here at the Union of Concerned Scientists. And that question is for you, Dr. Karletta Chief, why are you concerned?

Dr. Chief: I am a concerned scientist because indigenous communities are very unique politically, socioeconomically, in terms of their connection to the environment. And so it's really important to me, and it's a big commitment of mine to work with indigenous communities to value their ways, their world views in efforts to not only protect the environment, but also to protect their health, their well-being, and their culture.

Big thanks to Brenda Ekwurzel here at UCS for connecting me with Dr. Chief. Thanks to Omari Spears for production help on this episode. See you soon, Science Fighters!

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